Colorado Rights Blog


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October 31, 1998

A year after Robert Murphy died shortly after being taken into police custody last Halloween, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) condemned the Denver Police Department’s failure to act on a citizen complaint seeking administrative discipline for the officers responsible for Murphy’s arrest and custody.

The ACLU filed the complaint on behalf of Murphy’s family last December, immediately after district attorney Bill Ritter announced that no criminal charges would be filed against any of the officers.

Although the police opened an internal affairs file in response to the ACLU’s complaint, no findings have been made and no results have been reported, either to the ACLU or Murphy’s family.

"This unreasonable delay does nothing to restore the public’s confidence in the police department’s ability to investigate alleged misconduct of its officers," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "It also demonstrates the need for drastic reform in the procedures for police accountability. Under the governing ordinance, the Public Safety Review Commission cannot review this incident until the police have completed their investigation. But nothing requires the police to conduct their investigation promptly. This unjustified delay is an insult to Mr. Murphy’s family."

Murphy’s death sparked public controversy after two independent witnesses reported that they saw police kick and strike Murphy numerous times in the head, continuing the blows even after Murphy was handcuffed and subdued. One witness reported that police used a metal flashlight. The police report acknowledged that an officer hit Murphy, but only in the arms, not the head.

According to the limited information released by the police, the incident began when Murphy refused a police order to exit his pick-up truck and instead began to empty the contents of a pill bottle into his mouth. To prevent Murphy from swallowing what they suspected to be illegal drugs, police forcibly pulled Murphy from the vehicle. He emerged swinging and kicking, and police took him to the ground and handcuffed him.

Police eventually pulled some cellophane-wrapped packages from Murphy’s throat, attempted CPR, and called for paramedics. By the time they arrived, however, Murphy had no pulse. He never regained consciousness, and he was taken off life support several days later.

An autopsy revealed six bruises on Murphy’s head but no skull fractures. Death was attributed to suffocation from a blocked air passage in combination with cocaine intoxication.

"Although the District Attorney decided that criminal charges were not appropriate, that does not exonerate the officers," Silverstein said. "The Chief of Police must determine whether to impose administrative discipline." Unlike a criminal charge, such discipline does not require proof of criminal intent, nor does it require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to Silverstein, discipline could be appropriate for anything from the use of excessive force to the officers’ failure to clear Murphy’s air passage in time to save his life. The ACLU’s complaint also asks the Chief to investigate whether the incident requires stricter police regulations regarding the manner and circumstances in which officers use pepper spray.

"There is no justifiable reason for stalling this investigation any longer," Silverstein added. "For a full year now, the police have had all the relevant facts, including the statements of all the witnesses involved. The Chief must decide if those facts warrant discipline and whether they require changes in police policies."

Silverstein pointed out that other internal investigations requiring greater numbers of interviews have been completed in far less time. In 1996, when Mayor Webb ordered an internal investigation into allegations of excessive force and use of racial epithets at a dance attended by mostly African American youth at Thomas Jefferson High School, the police interviewed dozens of witnesses and compiled a thousand-page investigative report in a matter of months. Similarly, in 1997, after Channel 2 TV broadcast video footage that appeared to show an officer kicking suspect Gil Webb in the head, an internal investigation based on 90 witness interviews was also completed within a few months.

The ACLU also criticized the Denver Police Department’s failure to disclose more information about the events that led to Murphy’s death. "When Robert Murphy died, both the police and the district attorney said they would follow the protocol used in cases of police shootings," Silverstein said. "At the time, that procedure had just been endorsed by the Erickson Commission, which was formed to investigate how police shootings could be investigated in a manner that would maximize the public’s trust in the integrity of the process. The protocol called for the district attorney to disclose the entire investigative file once he decides not to file criminal charges." Instead of disclosing the file, however, the district attorney said that the protocol did not apply, because Murphy died by suffocation instead of shooting.

"Failing to disclose the facts undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of the investigation," Silverstein said. "The public has a right to full disclosure." On two occasions in recent years, the ACLU has initiated lawsuits and successfully obtained court orders to disclose internal investigation files, first in the TJ High School case and later in the Gil Webb investigation. The latter order is currently on appeal.

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